Last week we spent an evening at Ismini’s house. Ismini is 66, a Greek colleague of Linda’s at her school and a native of Kalamata. She has been reorganising her house, moving furniture, going through old papers and books, and is in a mood to reminisce.
She shows us an old identity card of her aunt’s issued in 1943 by the occupying Nazis. (Greece was occupied by the Germans from 1941 until 1944) Ismini remembers the civil war which followed the occupation. Her father was a communist and, following the civil war, the communist party was declared illegal in Greece. Known communist sympathisers were barred from jobs in the public services and many were imprisoned or shot. It seems that Ismini’s father was condemned to death and only escaped the firing squad because of the chance intervention of a neighbour.
As young girls, she and her sister Eleni were required to sign oaths renouncing communism but were nonetheless forbidden from attending Greek universities. As a result, Ismini went to study in England, where she became a fluent English speaker and a lifelong anglophile.
A rough town, Kalamata, she says, in the years when she was growing up, a sea port with a string of dives and brothels along the waterfront. The town had a reputation as a haven for homosexuals in those years. Interestingly, the Greek word sika, meaning fig, also denotes an inhabitant of Kalamata -whose chief export used to be figs. It’s also a popular term for a gay.
There is still prostitution in some parts of the city, but it’s a licensed business these days, she says. Until a year ago there was a bordello a hundred metres down the street from Ismini’s house, To Asteri, the star, but it closed its doors and the building now houses a kindergarten. Her son Stathi suggested that the new kindergarten should be called To Asteraki, the little star.
When she was a girl, all the young people wanted to get away from Kalamata. It’s a bigger, better place now. There are clubs, bars, facilities for young people. These days’ people want to stay, bring up their children here.
Ismini was brought up near the centre of the old city, but the house she has lived in for the past thirty years is at the eastern edge, where it merges with the ancient coastal town of Pharai. Homer mentions Pharai in the Odyssey. Odysseus’ son Telemachus comes here in search of his lost father.